Measure P: Can We See the Future Without It?

The Billion-Barrel Reason Big Oil Fights in Santa Barbara County

I spent 40 years in higher education and sent many students off to good, challenging jobs in the oil industry. Two of my students became presidents of oil companies. I myself did consulting work for oil companies in the past, both for major and local ones. Why am I voting “yes” on P? The environmental concerns that surround high-intensity production resonate with me. In particular I’m concerned about the enhanced earthquake risk associated with these methods, but I also worry about the larger issue of global warming and how it must be addressed on the individual and local level.

When I first heard about Measure P, it was from the No side. They have the airwave and print space pretty well bought out. I heard that P would eventually shut down the local industry resulting in a loss of jobs and tax revenues. I am not in favor of that, so I looked into it. I read the exemptions in Measure P and about the steps the county will take to protect or grandfather rights for existing projects, including well maintenance. So I don’t buy this objection. Yes on P.

Next I heard that County Counsel warned of lawsuits from the oil industry. Okay, lawyers warn, and oil companies sue – this is not news. Will I be intimidated by threats from the oil industry? Never. Yes on P.

Then I thought, maybe the No folks are worried about depletion — that existing wells are running dry so expansion with new projects is needed to keep up. But I looked at onshore production data for the county and found the opposite. Production has almost doubled over the past few years. Production was 2.5 million barrels in 2010, 2.8 million in 2011, 3.4 million in 2012, and 4.3 million in 2013. Business is very good. Yes on P.

Four million barrels made me think of the other scare from Big Oil (aka No on P). We lose county production and have to make up for it with foreign oil. If that ever happened it would be two supertanker loads per year. I laughed at this. Yes on P.

If the status quo is secure and if county resources are not yet in depletion, then what’s the big fuss about? The real reason is the industry’s desire to expand. That’s what businesses do. Leaders want their businesses to be bigger and better. I don’t judge them for that. But what would this expansion look like? This is key to what Measure P is really about.

The U.S. Energy Information Agency has estimated six hundred million barrels of technically recoverable oil remain locked up in California’s Monterey Formation — industry estimates run into the billions of barrels. The same formation underlies much of our county and has produced most of the county’s oil. The problem is, that oil is locked up in tight rocks. To get the oil out clever techniques like cyclic steam injection and even horizontal well fracking will be needed. Measure P would block this type of expansion. Now I’m making sense of this fight.

Who is fighting? Sure we have locals versus locals in this discourse, but why the lopsided public relations efforts between the No and Yes sides? That’s not hard to answer. The No folks have major oil companies on their side, like Chevron. Why would Chevron bother with Santa Barbara County? Chevron, a global company, produces the same amount of oil in a day and a half that our county produces in a year. What’s the payoff for them? I don’t know. Maybe they plan to jump in and go after the Monterey bonanza or maybe they don’t want citizens controlling the scale of the industry in their own backyards. Both reasons make sense to me. Yes on P.

If Measure P fails, then what happens? Will it be business as usual? My answer — NO — expansion will occur, it is inevitable. What kind? It will be high intensity production that includes steam injection, acid well stimulation, fracking, and deep wastewater wells. Most of the easy oil, the low hanging fruit, is long gone. Extraordinary measures are needed to expand — and business will go out on a flimsy limb to do it. I foresee uncontrolled industrial havoc in our county. Have you ever been to Taft, California, just across our county line? Not to malign a community whose citizens might love it, but this is the face of industrial-scale oil and gas. This could be our future.

Yes on P.

Bruce Luyendyk is professor emeritus of Earth Science, former chair of the Department of Earth Science, and former associate dean of Science, all at UCSB.

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